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“Billy Graham’s Soul Mate”

August 1, 2007

        Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy have written a book to be published this month. The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House tells the remarkable story of the evangelist and his ministry to the presidents of the United States. Graham was not the first minister to have access to the White House, but he is the only one to have influence in eleven consecutive administrations. Democratic and Republican presidents, each very different from the other, all felt the need to consult with Dr. Graham. Throughout his public ministry, Billy Graham had his own consultant, Ruth Bell Graham, his wife.

            Last week Time magazine and CNN published on line “Ruth and Billy Graham’s Final Farewell,” an article by Gibbs and Duffy based on an interview with Dr. Graham following the death of Ruth.

When he was asked how he came to be an evangelist, Billy Graham turned his eyes heavenward: “It was God who did this.” But it was Ruth who kept his feet on the ground. Ruth Bell Graham died on June 14 at the age of 87.

“Ruth was my life partner,” Billy said in the statement announcing her death. “We were called by God as a team.” Several days later he said, “Ruth was my soul mate and best friend. I cannot imagine living a single day without her by my side.”

A daughter of Presbyterian medical missionaries in China, Ruth had no intention of getting married. She aspired to become a missionary to Tibet.

Ruth and Billy met at Wheaton College. He was already an ordained Baptist minister. Ruth remained a lifelong Presbyterian.

She liked Billy’s earnest energy and the message he preached. She came to know his gentle sincerity. They married after graduation.

Billy was soon traveling the country and the world leading crusades and meeting with world leaders. The wave of power and celebrity might have destroyed a lesser man, but Billy had Ruth as his anchor, teasing him and keeping him humble.

When rumors circulated that Graham was considering a run for the White House, Ruth informed him, “If you run, I don’t think the country will elect a divorced president.”

A few months later she and Billy dined with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson at the White House on the eve of the Democratic convention. Johnson began listing possible running mates. He wanted to know what Graham thought of them. Ruth kicked Billy under the table. “You shouldn’t answer questions like that,” said Ruth. “Your job is to give spiritual and moral advice to the President, not political.”

A woman of deep faith, Ruth’s ministry was private, counseling individuals, writing books, sharing the gospel with the ever widening circle of friends, including the First Families.

Barbara Bush and Ruth Graham shared an extensive correspondence over the years. Both were strong willed, outspoken women who married young and were responsible for large families.

Each had a wonderful sense of humor. Barbara noted that Ruth had once been asked whether she had ever contemplated divorce. “Her answer, was, ‘Divorce? No. Murder? Yes.'”

Ruth brought to her marriage just the right skills to manage her unusual household. Her role as wife and mother was her calling. Once she tried to hide a broken arm from Billy because she didn’t want him to know that she had been hang gliding.

By the mid-1950s it was no longer possible to live in a house where tourists could walk up to the windows and peer in. So, she created a home for her husband and children that was a sanctuary. They bought 200 acres on top of a mountain in Montreat, North Carolina. They built their house out of the logs salvaged from old cabins and barns being torn down in the area. The house was furnished with antiques and the treasures of their years of world travel.

It was in this home that she spent her last days. On her birthday, June 10, Ruth was in rare form, celebrating with her family. She was frail after a bout of pneumonia.

Three days later, Billy and the children were around Ruth’s bed, reading the Bible together. They sang the hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Finally, at twilight, Ruth took her last few breaths. Billy leaned over and kissed her cheek and her forehead.

“No matter how prepared you think you are for the death of a loved one, it still comes as a shock,” Billy Graham observed, “and it still hurts very deeply.” Ruth and Billy would have been married 64 years this August.

“I realize now,” Graham said, “in a way I never could have before, that a very important part of me has been taken away.” He has a new tenderness for all those who mourn, that they will be comforted.

One way he copes, says Dr. Graham, is by thanking God for the years they had together. “They are over now, but God was good in giving us to each other, and I want to be grateful for those memories.”

Billy Graham spent his life teaching people how to live. Now he is in a position to show people how to face death. Hope is no longer a theological abstraction to him. “Someday soon I will join her,” he says. “I’ve preached this message all my life, and it means more to me now than ever before.”

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, August 2007

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